by Gordon Hiles
To film a body-recovery at world-record depths, nothing short of a bulletproof housing is needed. Experienced divers and engineers told me shooting video at 271m was near impossible. They doubted a camera would survive the immense pressure (28â29 bar) warning, âThe pressure will crush it, it will implode and injure someoneâ.
But this latest creation of mine was crucial to the credibility of the documentary footage. Not only was it successfully made, but it became vitally important. It survived while Australian cave diver Dave Shaw tragically did not.
The salvaged footage provided extraordinary insight to Shawâs ill-fated attempt to recover a body from the bottom of Boesmansgat in the Northern Cape, South Africa, the third deepest water filled cave in the world.
At the end of October 2004, Dave Shaw set a world deep dive record using re-breather equipment. He dived to a depth of 271m in Boesmansgat, Northern Cape, South Africa, during which he located the remains of diver Deon Dreyer who had disappeared there 10 years earlier. Dave almost immediately made a decision to return and dive again to recover the body, something Deonâs family had been hoping for since a failed attempt using an underwater ROV (remotely operated vehicle) soon after Deonâs disappearance.
Plans were made, the date was set, and producing a documentary of the undertaking was all part of the deal. Dave Shaw had entrusted me with the task of making the film since I had been at Boesmansgat prior to his dive, shooting a film on Verna Van Schaikâs world record deep dives for women. Between us we realized that recording Daveâs work at the bottom was paramount for the film, and we had to come up with tools to do so.
So what did we need? It is total black out down there in the cave at 270-odd metres. And yes, the atmospheric pressure is huge, 28 to 29 atmospheres in fact. The underwater housings I regularly use for most of my underwater work are designed for depths not exceeding 60, maybe 80 metres. I started looking at the smallest MiniDV cameras. I had to find one that was not only small and lightweight, but that had ânight shotâ capability. The idea was to house it and Dave would take it down on a helmet mount in order to record one full hour of the dive, hands free. This would allow him to continue with his own task undisturbed.
Iâm a bit of a pushover for Sony, and was happy to find the new HC comsumer range conformed to the need. I ed the HC20, as this was a basic camera without the extras. It was the right size, the size of the palm of my hand, and it had the ânight shotâ requirement. I also sourced a compact .7 wide-angle adapter to complete the camera package.
Next, a visit to Greg Raymond who builds his own range of underwater video housings, the Aquacam. He looked bemused when I said I needed him to build a housing that would basically put a âbullet-proofâ skin around the camera. I threw in some ideas and suggestions, but ultimately he had to decide what the end result was going to be. He had just taken delivery of a new C&C milling machine and he was keen to put it to the test. So after creating a design around the shape of the camera, he put the machine to work on a solid block of aluminium, which I had earlier found lying around in my garage, waiting for such an opportunity.
After 18 hours of milling and cutting under the watchful eye of Greg, the machine delivered a perfectly shaped, seamless casing into which the HC20 would fit. Greg then added a viewfinder port and a front cover with lens port, to seal the casing. The 3mm o-rings provided seals for the ports and front cover. Lastly, the record control lever was added using a regular o-ring âglandâ type seal to keep 29 atmospheres of pressure at bay. The camera fitted so perfectly into the housing that we did not even need to use a retaining screw to secure it. We were happy with the result, not to mention confident that it would take the pressure.
So, on to Boesmansgat in January 2005. Dave, who lived in Hong Kong, had flown out and went straight to work on planning and coordinating the task. It was a huge undertaking with eight re-breather divers, dive coordinator, eight-man police dive team, mine rescue personnel, diving medical and hyperbaric chamber personnel, film crew, and a few others. We were able to run our underwater camera tests on a 150m prep dive on the Wednesday, which it passed with flying colours, and then in a swimming pool in order to set up the camera correctly on the helmet so as to shoot the optimum view of Daveâs hands at work performing his task of securing Deonâs remains. We also mounted a small diving torch that could also operate at that depth, to provide just sufficient light for the ânight shotâ requirements. Dave explained to some of Deonâs family members that he wanted to take the camera down in order to show others what it looked like at such a location on this planet, and to record an event that had never been attempted before.
Dive day, 8 January 2005. At 06:13 Dave commences with his dive. He is heavily equipped with dive gear, re-breather, side slung tanks, additional dive computers, lights, and of course the helmet mounted camera. But this is normal for a deep diver. You carry back-ups for everything. His descent to the bottom takes just over nine minutes, fast but efficient. He makes his way across to the body 15 metres away and proceeds with the task of securing it.
Through various causes, and even with Dave sticking rigidly to his dive plan and cut-off times, he did not come back to the surface. He sadly succumbed to these various causes, and his life ended at the bottom of Boesmansgat just 22 minutes after commencing the dive.
Through a twist of circumstances, Dave Shaw fulfilled his promise to Deonâs parents to bring the body to the surface. While divers were clearing equipment from the cave on the following Wednesday, the main shotline was pulled up out of the cave. Attached to the deep end of the shotline was a thin caving line that Dave had tied there during his October dive. This line served to return Dave, with Deonâs remains hooked up to his caving light, to the roof of the cave, and subsequently to the surface with the help of two re-breather and two police divers. And still fully intact, the helmet with the underwater camera also returned to the surface, after more than 100 hours at a depth of 270m! The video footage not only provided some unique material, it also, and more importantly, provided an invaluable means through picture and sound, for investigators to find out and understand what went wrong on Daveâs last dive.
Dave will be remembered for his courage and determination to undertake this task.
Notes on Gordon Hiles and Greg Raymond: Gordon has been in the TV industry since 1973. In 1984 he shot his first underwater film at Dyer Island, South Africa, on Cape Fur Seals and Great White Sharks. As the need arose, he started manufacturing his own underwater housings, which included two Betacam housings and one of the first housings for the Sony VX1000. Gordon has continued working in the Film and TV industry as a lighting cameraman specializing in underwater filming, as well as producing films of water related topics where specialized water shots are required. Greg is a skilled toolmaker who runs his own manufacturing business. Greg met Gordon through the manufacturing of underwater housings. He has produced some fine units, mostly for consumer video cameras, but when called upon, can deliver a specialized product that will perform as desired. Currently he continues producing the regular line of consumer housings, but is also producing pro units for the Sony PD170 as well as collaborating with Gordon on a prototype for the newly released Sony HD cameras.
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